Articles & Publications

Raphael Noz: Between the Visible and the Invisible

Originally published as a catalog essay for Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 1999

I met Raphael my first winter in Provincetown, back in 1993. That winter the heavens dropped more snow than I had seen in my whole life, and in my chilly furnished sublet on Mechanic Street, I survived the weather and the solitude on poetry and wine and rich conversation with a few new friends, other washashores, dislocated, searching. Raphael was among us.

I remember the amazing story of Raphael's arrival in P'Town. On a cold, starry evening in the winter of 1992, he crested the last hill in Truro, and drove down into the town. He parked his car in the town lot at the wharf, and as he walked away, he noticed the license plate of the car in front of him. It read NOZ.

Raphael is deeply drawn to such mysterious synchronicity. In the work exhibited here, he is moving through that darkened doorway between the visible and invisible. Indeed, the work in this exhibition might be considered a kind of spiritual practice, for he is exploring the unexplainable, the inexpressible, the sacred context of our lives. Getting to this place has taken courage.

Born in Los Angeles in 1964 to a Mexican father and an American mother, later separated, Raphael grew up in the white world of West LA. His father spoke little of his family or his Hispanic heritage. Raphael lived with that mystery. He left the city for college in Washington State, then traveled to Italy to study in Florence. Later Raphael moved east to study at Rhode Island School of Design and the Museum School in Boston. At 28 he came to Provincetown where, he says, he grew up.

Years later, a friend asked Raphael for a favor. Would he bring a family heirloom up to Boston for him, a portrait of the friend's deceased father? Raphael traveled to Boston to deliver the portrait. Later he found out that in that same period of time his own father had died. He went home to Los Angeles for his father's funeral. There spent time with half-siblings from his father's first marriage, whom he had never met…full Hispanic siblings, with his own brown skin and eyes. "I saw I was more like them than the family I had grown up with." It was a catalyst for him to seek out his heritage. He decided to go to Mexico. He would take with him the watches, found with his father's things. The alarm on one of them kept going off. He would give the watches away, to the street children, and lay his father to rest. The prospect of the journey was terrifying. He had the overwhelming feeling that this was a death trip -- “I was sure I was going to die." Still, he went to Mexico. And that pilgrimage, returning the father to his home, "gave birth to me." In that transforming experience, Raphael located his native, visual language.

Painting on metal, Raphael expands on the Mexican tradition of ex votos, or prayer painting. Ex votos are story pictures, which are created out of thanks for a special happening or intervention, often incorporating text as a way of making the message more explicit. Raphael transforms his experience and personal memories into visual narratives, turning his own life history into small universal testaments to the presence of the unexplainable in our daily lives. Larger than any human conception, in the midst of dislocation, loneliness, fear, love, desire, family ties, there is the intangible, the inexplicable. In the hidden lies the power.

These paintings breathe the sensation of place and feeling. In The Two Dollar Bill, a brown hand appears in the corner, reaching from the last pew of small, sparsely peopled sanctuary at St. Peter's to drop a two-dollar bill in the collection plate, while in the background, the space diminishes to the altar mural. The mural depicts Jesus' calling of St. Peter. We don't see the subject, the "I" of the painting, only the brown hands and the text, written in a child's awkward cursive, in the prayer missal he holds. It is a message from his father: Sure, I'd love to visit Cape Cod. It's ok to let me go. It's ok to have your own life.

The paintings carry the distressed look of relics, a kind of defaced elegance. Like an old colonial capital, like the Mexico City of the 30's and 40's remembered by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz:

I loved everything about that city, even though it had an air of fallen
greatness. Today we often sigh when we think about the Mexico of
those years, but it already showed signs of a beauty mistreated.
Something which had seen better days. Poverty and greatness:
an old grandeur and a sense of melancholy.

To achieve this effect, Raphael often leaves the pieces outside, exposed to the dirt and settling dust of the city, to the humanness of the city. "It is better," he says, "to stay close to the dirtiness. Dirtiness and elegance co-exist. That's life."

Raphael sometimes shops for his subjects in the marketplace of Mexican history. The newest pieces in this exhibition grow out of contrasting images from the colonial period, when his Spanish ancestors immigrated to Mexico, when European cruelty and civility encountered indigenous Indian culture. Like traditional ex-votos, these paintings carry a vocabulary of images, a conciliatory iconography, deftly uniting opposites. It is that point of encounter, the intersection of the sacred with the profane, the refined with the primitive, the masculine with the feminine, the conscious with the unconscious, all existing at the same time that ignites Raphael's imagination.

Several works are shaped like vessels. These pieces are often decorated with finely rendered figures and carefully crafted attachments, a form which combines the peasant tradition of hammered metal decoration and European style painting. Some vessels carry a religious symbolism, like the ritual chalice offered during mass. One piece presents a celebratory vessel, with a womb-shaped frame, opening on a family portrait - the child's christening. Campaign, shaped like a gushing heart, depicts the Spanish soldiers riding to battle the Indians. The Night Sea holds the image of a thoroughly modern buff guy in a thong, headless, levitating over the green sea. Above, the animate moon and stars, observing all, suggest a benevolent presence.

The paintings in this exhibition tell us of the power of hidden things. It is Raphael's obsession, to pursue the ultimately futile work of trying to describe the invisible. In a way, he says, he can only fail. Yet he persists, the hope of rebirth in the doing.

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved